Friday, December 09, 2011

Free Lunch: But Who's Paying?

In a blog post dated 6th December and entitled “Adaptation by Directed Modification Rather than Selection” anti-evolutionist Cornelius Hunter, tells us about an interesting recent scientific paper (Feb 2010). This paper publishes evidence that breeding populations of cells very rapidly adapt to changes in environmental stress and then pass on the adaptations to descendents. Hunter interprets this rapid “learning” to be evidence of the presence of some kind of Lamarckian mechanism built into to cells.

(Aside: I’m not going to evaluate the paper Hunter refers to, or his opinion of it as I’m not a biologist. However, assuming for the moment that the paper Hunter quotes is evidence of the presence of Lamarckian or epigenetic mechanisms then the following question is prompted : Are these mechanisms reified in the form of some sophisticated molecular machinery or is there some transcendent law that acts on molecular matter to produce these effects and thus effectively adds to the canon of physics? )

Hunter is arguing, I think, that this evidence suggests the existence of some sophisticated biological mechanisms, currently unrecognised by the  academic establishment, and these mechanisms explain natural history; in short these mechanisms explain evolution rather than are explained by it. That may (or may not) be the case as far as my knowledge of biology is concerned. I'm of the opinion, however, that even if evolution happened just like the academic establishment maintains, it nonetheless must be resourced by high sophistication in the transcendent physical canon that governs our universe. (Which is something I have said repeatedly on this blog). The choice is this: Either the mechanisms guiding evolution are reified in given molecular engineering (Hunter's suggestion, I think) or they are to be found in the transcendent physical canon in terms of the constants and laws that govern our universe.

In the polarized impassioned disputes that Hunter and other anti-evolutionists get themselves into with zealous atheists I find myself a rather disinterested party. It’s not that I’m disinterested in the engine of natural history - I’m very interested in fact; my disinterest is in the high stakes that some theists (particularly fundamentalists) and atheist zealots have vested in particular hoped for outcomes to the evolution debate. The basis for the rejection of standard evolution by theists like Hunter is that it appears to threaten God’s role as a homunculus intervener in natural history and therefore threatens faith; this, I suspect, drives the rationale for the vehement anti-evolutionism of many “Intelligent Design” supporters. They have taken to heart the atheist zealot billing of evolution as the unguided “blind watch maker”, an idea that takes no cognizance of the sophistication required  to select the physical canon needed to service evolution and make it work; zealous atheists treat that canon as if it were a mathematical trivialism. In response anti-evolutionists have allowed through this portrayal of the physical canon as the blind direction-less director. In this vein Hunter talks about “undirected mutations” (see referenced post) and Jonathan McLatchie in this post on “Evolution News” is even clearer; he talks about:

“....the common scientific view that all life is explicable by mechanisms of unguided chance and necessity… The key point is that the mechanisms undergirding the evolution of life, according to Darwinism, are non-intelligent”.

This fanciful idea of “undirected chance & necessity” is at once the bogy of the God fearing anti-evolutionists and the darling of atheist zealots. On the one hand McLatchie’s fancied “necessity” threatens the role of a homunculus Intelligent Designer, but on the other hand atheist zealots appear to see no threat from a sophisticated logical contingency in the physical regime, a very particular form of contingency, in fact, that is required to give a realistic probability to evolution. This contingency raises unsettling questions for atheist zealots. (But the convoluted physical logic needed to drive evolution seems to have the effect of obscuring the presence of this contingency from the human mind; conditional necessity is easily conflated with absolute necessity) Because both sides have put down huge stakes on the table, the disinterested party such as myself  has to factor this in when considering their arguments; frankly, this contentious polarised context is not conducive to trust.

However we try to cut it, one mathematical truism remains: If evolution has occurred, even in the manner maintained by the scientific establishment, then the algorithms able to generate our natural history are likely to be extraordinarily rare mathematical classes in the space of all possibilities. In which case the inappropriately named "necessity" that McLatchie fears is no necessity at all but instead exceedingly unique and contingent circumstances on which evolution is conditioned.

Humanly speaking it is not possible to purge our mathematical models of the rare & peculiar preconditions needed to confer on evolution a realistic probability; all sensible outcomes, it seems, eventually trace back to the startlingly unique conditions that, as far as we are concerned, constitute a free lunch from nowhere – and that’s true even in a universe generating multiverse (See here: Necessity and aseity are destined to ever elude our science. It is an irony that the anti-evolutionists, like the atheist zealots, do not make much of this fact.

STOP PRESS 14/12/2011
I found this cartoon on PZ Myers blog. Given the above material and a little modification it's perfect:

Two reasons to feel superior: What would life be like without the Schadenfreude of looking down on someone?

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